Traffic Tickets Explained
What is a Traffic Violation?
Most individuals during their lifetime will end up getting pulled over for some type of traffic violation. While it’s not the most pleasant experience, you can make it much easier if you are prepared in advance on how to properly conduct yourself. The most important thing to do is to remain calm. Always be polite to the officer and be prepared to provide law enforcement officials with your driver’s license, your current vehicle registration and proof of liability insurance. Beyond that, it’s best to say as little as possible and never make any admissions regarding your driving.
Most traffic violations are known as “infractions.” An infraction is not considered a crime and the penalty is usually a fine. Those charged with infractions are not entitled to court appointed representation, but they can hire their own attorney, if they wish.
A moving violation occurs whenever a vehicle in motion violates a traffic law. The most common moving violations include speeding, running a stop sign or red light, and making an illegal U-turn. These charges are punishable by fine only; there is no jail or a trial by jury. The officer will ask for your driver’s license, your car’s registration, your proof of insurance and may ask you to step outside your car. Motorists stopped for moving violations are usually released after they sign a "Notice to Appear" which is printed on the ticket, also known as a “citation.” The citation will have information about when and where to appear for the court hearing.
The officer will ask you to sign the citation; signing it is not an admission of guilt but is a promise to appear in the listed court no later than the listed date. If you refuse to sign the ticket the officer is required by law to take you into custody and present you before a judge for arraignment on the charges.
A non-moving violation typically involves parking your car illegally or receiving a “fix-it” ticket to repair faulty equipment, or removing modifications to your vehicle that are illegal. They are fined at a much lower rate than a moving violation and do not show up on your driving record. The most common non-moving violations include parking in front of a fire hydrant, parking in a no-parking zone, and parking in front of an expired meter.
Unlike moving violations, a parking ticket is issued against the vehicle and not the driver. If you have not responded to a parking ticket within a certain period of time, a notice will be mailed to the address of the registered owner of the vehicle demanding that the parking ticket be paid. Your vehicle can be towed and then impounded if the parking violations are not paid.
Vehicle maintenance and vehicle modification infractions may include excessive muffler noise, no license plate, driving with expired registration tags, headlights or taillights not working, and a cracked windshield.
A fix-it ticket requires the motorist to fix or correct the violation and/or pay a fine. An officer may issue a “Notice to Correct Violation” for equipment, license, or registration violation. Failure to correct the problem may lead to a violation for failing to correct the violation.
If you are charged with a traffic infraction and fail to appear or fail to pay the fine by the specified date, a default judgment will be entered against you. Your driver’s license may be suspended and/or a warrant for arrest may be issued.
Options after Getting a Traffic Ticket (for Infractions)
The traffic ticket, or citation, will include a “Notice to Appear” date. Sometimes the case against you will not have been filed prior to that date. It is best to appear in court anyway; if the case has not been filed, you will be given a new date to appear. This appearance is also known as an “arraignment.” At the arraignment you will be asked to enter a plea. Failure to appear at court may result in the issuance of an arrest warrant.
At the arraignment, the judicial officer will explain what the charges are, inform you of your rights, and ask you if you want to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest, also called “nolo contendere”. A “no contest” plea is basically the same as a “guilty” plea. It is a way of saying, “I don’t believe I did all that the officer charges, but I admit violating the law.” This plea is traditionally used if there was an accident or other reason you don’t want the plea to be used as an admission of liability in a civil case related to the incident.
If you plead guilty or no contest. You may plead guilty and pay the fine, also referred to as “bail.” When the court receives your payment, your case will be closed. You may also contact the court to find out the amount of your fine. This information can be obtained by telephone or on the court’s website (lassencourt.ca.gov). Payment can be made in person, by mail, or online.
A plea of no contest, or “nolo contendere,” means that you are not challenging the charges included in the citation, but at the same time you are not admitting guilt. A no contest plea may limit liability if there is a related civil case.
Depending on the charges, the violation may show up as a conviction on your Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) record. You will get points on your driving record, and your car insurance company may ask you to pay more for insurance or they may cancel your policy and tell you to find insurance elsewhere.
In addition to a fine, the court may also allow you to attend traffic school, as long as you are eligible to go to traffic school. The court will provide you with the information needed to attend traffic school, including the additional cost, how payments are to be made, and how to access traffic school online. If you complete traffic school as required, you should not get any points on your DMV record.
If you plead not guilty. If you plead not guilty at the arraignment, the court will set a trial date. You have a statutory right to have the trial heard within 45 calendar days. If you are okay with the trial taking place beyond that timeframe, you will be asked to “waive” your right to a speedy trial. That will allow the court to set a trial date beyond 45 days.
What is a court trial?
In traffic infraction cases, a judicial officer will hear your case instead of a jury. You have the right to retain a lawyer to represent you at any time, including trial, but only at your own expense. At trial, the court will order the law enforcement officer involved with your case to testify regarding the facts form his or her perspective. You or your attorney can question the officer concerning his or her testimony, challenging his or her memory of the events. You also have the right to bring in your own witnesses to testify, and to present documentary evidence supporting your position.
If you are found not guilty, your case will be dismissed. If you are found guilty, the court will determine an appropriate fine. You may also be asked to pay certain court fees.
You may also have a trial by mail, known as a “trial by written declaration.” This is where you submit a written document, outlining the facts of your case and your position on the charges. You must post the “bail” amount, a pre-paid fine, to use this procedure. If you are found not guilty, your bail will be returned. You must exercise this option on or before the “date to appear” on your citation.
If you disagree with the court’s decision, you may file an appeal.
Traffic cases can also be filed as misdemeanors or felonies. Those charged in this manner have the same rights as any criminal defendant, including the right to an attorney and to a trial by a judge or jury. If they cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint a public defender to represent them. The offender may be charged with a serious violation if it caused or threatened to cause injury to a person or property. Running a stop sign may only be an infraction of the law. However, if a pedestrian gets hit, the infraction may be categorized as a misdemeanor or even a felony. Individuals who have repeat DUI offenses, a hit and run accident or are involved in an accident resulting in vehicular homicide will be charged with a felony.
For more information, view the sidebar to the left on Misdemeanors or the section of Felonies.